The occupation of footplateman has been with us now for a little over two hundred years during which time more has been written about them than any other group of people involved in a ‘working class’ occupation. Why is this so? In the General Strike of 1926 all manner of ‘respectable gentlemen’ queued up for the chance to work as ‘blackleg’ enginemen – these people were strangely absent during the ‘Winter of Discontent’ when the refuse collectors went on strike – leading to mountains of rubbish being piled up on the streets – ‘enginemen good, bin-men bad’. Perhaps, even more to the point – would we have the ‘heritage’ railways we all love and enjoy if the desire to be an engine driver hadn’t taken hold in the way it did?
In less than a decade after Trevithick’s ‘Catch-me-who-can’ entertained the crowds in London, steam traction was being used ‘commercially’ on Charles Brandling’s colliery railway in Leeds, William Hedley’s ‘Puffing Billy’ was in action at Wylam colliery and Stephenson’s locomotive ‘Blucher’ was in service at Killingworth colliery. The men who operated these locomotives are in essence the first footplatemen. Initially these men were drawn from within the existing colliery work-force, and Stephenson himself recommended ‘trustworthy’ men from his native Tyneside to crew the locomotives on the Liverpool & Manchester when it first opened. Stephenson and his brothers Ralph and James performed the duties of the footplate crew on the ‘opening train’ of the Stockton & Darlington. However, as the railway network begins to expanded beyond the confines of the pits and the coal staithes of Northern England recruitment begins to take place amongst the men being employed locally in the construction of the new railway lines.
Initially the steam locomotive worked alongside the horses which they were designed to supplant – this was not a resounding success. In the early days of operations on the Stockton & Darlington there were several ‘incidents’ which gave rise for concern. These concerns were essentially over, who had right of way over particular sections of the track, drunkenness, excessive hours on duty and speeding. In one incident the driver was, speeding and drunk, in an other accident the driver fell asleep, due to having been on duty for 15 hours. Other problems were, drunken fights over who had right of way and horse leaders going off to the pub for several hours at a time.
It is hard to imagine that these sorts of image would create the vision of the ‘heroic’ engine driver in his cab, monarch of all he surveys, commanding the very forces of nature. The everyday operation of the Stockton & Darlington railway was, it would seem, a very far cry from Terence Cuneo’s dramatic painting of the opening day train. A contemporaneous drawing by J.R.Brown, of the ‘first train’, depicts Stephenson in a grand pose on the running plate as the train proceeds, behind a man on horse back, across a bridge over the turnpike – is this the beginning of the ‘heroic’ image – it is undoubtedly one of the first images of a ‘footplateman’ – even if it is of Stephenson?
The difficulties created by drunkenness were not confined to the Stockton & Darlington. Local Leeds legend has it that one of Murray and Blenkinsop’s engines, on Brandling’s colliery railway, exploded because the crew were ‘down the pub’ and Trevithick’s first engine reputedly suffered a similar fate for the same reason. The relationship between drinking and railway work was not confined to the footplate. Coleman, in his excellent book on the railway navvy, ‘The Railway Navvies’, explains how, many navvies worked on a daily diet of a gallon of beer and a pound of beef. Railways could and did recruit footplate crew from amongst these men. One of the regular drivers, in the early days, on the London & Birmingham was a publican from Rugby – according to some accounts he was something of an eccentric and would turn up for duty in a frock coat and top hat. Once again it is difficult to reconcile this knowledge with the image of the ‘heroic’ engineman.
The early locomotives themselves had little by way of protection from the weather, mechanical failure was a frequent possibility and a lack of working rules and signalling created a very real hazard to life and limb. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, in freezing fog, with a broken down engine and only time interval signalling for protection from other trains, which, by the way, had no direct braking system, is more the stuff of nightmares than heroics – but it does create circumstances in which men could, and did, behave heroically. However, the fact that circumstances could, on occasion, give footplatemen the opportunity to behave with great heroism is not the same thing as an ‘heroic’ image encompassing all footplatemen. This is reinforced by the knowledge that footplatemen were often prosecuted following an accident – with spells in jail and on the treadmill adding insult to probable injury.
Long hours on duty, poor to non-existent weather protection, health and safety hazards, and rates of pay less than that of the station masters of the lesser stations along the line was the common experience of Britain’s first enginemen at work on the Stockton & Darlington. Again it is difficult to find anything ‘heroic’ in this. Despite the obvious vicissitudes suffered by the early footplatemen the heroic image of the engine driver did come to hold sway in the imagination of at least one part of Victorian society – the middle-class. It is here that we must look to find the origins of the heroic and romanticised vision of the footplateman.
It was the directors of the Stockton & Darlington who decided that things needed to be done to curtail, the drunken shenanigans, speeding and disputes over ‘rights of way’ – all of which were, rightly, considered bad for business. Similarly, it was the directors of other railway companies who introduced rules and regulations governing the conduct, sobriety and working practices of their employees. These rules and regulations were often based on those governing military service and were applied for the most part, in a draconian fashion, by the lower levels of railway management. Here again the picture is less than heroic, indeed there appears to be a concerted effort to standardise the workforce in much the same way as standardisation was taking place across all of manufacturing – this can be most clearly seen in moving to a ‘uniformed’ railway workforce. This image not only contradicts ideas of the heroic individual – it is a direct attempt to remove the ‘individual’ in favour of the ‘uniform’. This image is not only un-heroic it is also the antithesis of ‘romantic’.
When Victoria came to the throne in 1838 railway expansion was beginning to create the first tentative steps in a national network of lines. The London & Birmingham, the Great Western and the Grand Junction are either under construction, or are open and planning extensions and amalgamations. Initially these circumstances led to footplate crew being much in demand, but it did not lead to any overall improvements in the numbers of hours being worked or the weather proofing of the footplate. In the early 1840s one of the more notorious of the ‘Railway Barons’, George Hudson, the so called ‘Railway King’, created one of the first ‘footplate disputes’ when he tried to get the enginemen to work even longer hours for even less pay.
Several consequences arose from this dispute. The use of un-trained footplate crews in place of the strikers led to several accidents. This, in turn, caused the Directors of the York & North Midland to instruct Hudson to resolve the dispute, and many of the strikers were subsequently re-employed. The strike clearly demonstrated the dangers of trying to run trains using untrained footplate crews and just how skilled the regular crews were in dealing with poor to non-existent brakes, the vagaries of time interval signalling and the unreliable nature of the fledgling technology. The strikes against Hudson’s cost cutting are even more remarkable when you consider that there were no trade unions, this was direct action by those directly involved.
Like many of you reading this article I grew up during the period of Nationalisation on a diet of the writings of O.S. Nock, monthly doses of Locomotive Practice and Performance, tales of the fearless high speed running of driver Sparshatt and the bravery of driver John Axon – heroic and romantic. It is surprising what a difference seven years as a footplateman makes to the romantic and heroic image.
One of the first things you learn is that the vast majority of your shed-mates did not grow up on a diet of ‘Osnock’ and LP&P – and the first day they spent ‘hanging around at the end of the platform’ was their first turn on the station pilot. This is not to say that they were unenthusiastic, more that for most footplatemen it was a job of work and not the fulfilment of some boyhood ambition. Steaming down the East Coast Mainline running a fully fitted freight to the same timings as the ‘Talisman’ a la driver Sprashatt sounded great on paper – many of the firemen I worked with would have much preferred a little less haste and a lot less shovelling.
Some drivers I fired to were teetotal, some never drank whilst on duty and more than a few enjoyed a glass or two of foaming ale – one or two enjoyed a glass too many on occasion. There were drivers who made great efforts to run to the timings and some who were satisfied to be ‘there or thereabouts’ some would spit and curse and some would come to work every day in a clean white shirt and tie. One driver would coax his engine trying to use as little coal and water as possible whilst still keeping time, another would ‘give it some second valve’ – ‘cleans the tubes they’d say’. All you knew was that flying from the top of the chimney was your hard shovelled coal.
There is barely a minute day or night when a footplate crew were not booking-on or booking-off at some shed or other around the country. Booking-on times were very precise – to the minute, 03.43 for the 04.40 Salisbury papers, for instance. Booking-off may not have been at your home depot and railway lodging houses had a variable reputation – but none of them were ‘palatial’ and ‘bed ’s still warm’ was a not uncommon remark. It was not unknown for men to flop out unwashed and still in their ‘blues’! Not only ‘unromantic’ but un-hygienic as well.
When, in 1948, the railway network was nationalised there were roughly 70, 000 footplatemen ranging from 15 year old engine cleaners to 65 year old link one drivers. Many of these old hand drivers had kept the railways running during world war II and some had been enginemen during the Great War of 1914 -1918. The lines they ran on and more than a few of the locomotives they used on those lines were running during the Boer War. Bombed, shell-shocked and short on investment, fitters still worked on engines at night using tallow lamps – ‘practically biblical’. Hardly the conditions to produce boundless enthusiasm, nor can they be, in any way, described by the term romantic.
Despite, or maybe in spite, of all this the myth of the romantic/heroic engine driver persists – ‘heritage’ crews battle for the unofficial blue ribbon for the climb to Ais Gill, pitting Duchess against Duke or King as they battle away from Appleby. Stop watches still time the feats, afficionadoes debate the performance and the fireboy still sweats like a pig in a lard factory. However, the footplate of the modern-day steam rail tour bears little resemblance to the footplate of the steam powered mainline railway of the past. Today there are more personnel on the footplate than the parson preached about. All tours of over 75 miles have to have two firemen, so I’m told. Back in the day Camden crews worked to Carlisle, Perth crews as far south as Crewe and I’ve personally worked Waterloo to Exeter and return – at 75 miles we hadn’t even reached Salisbury on the down run.
The photographs are: Me at work on the Bulleid Pacific No.35025 Brocklebank Line between Shawford & Winchester with the ‘up’ Royal Wessex. Me leaning / posing in the cab of Merchan Navy class pacific No.35023 Hollan-Afrika Line. An unknown ‘volunteer’ cleaning the smokebox on Bulleid Light Pacific No.34101 Hartland.
If you have enjoyed my blogs – I have written a book about my 60 years involvement with railways, from trainspotter, via steam age footplateman, to railway author and photographer, this is a link to it: